By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
A sliver of moon rises in the sky. The boat roars over undulating lily pads, gliding through marsh and reeds. Riding high off Amira's victory, it's natural for the men to think the next kill will come quickly.
Swartley turns on his headlamp, scanning the water for eyes. He pauses, leans over, and snatches a gator — no more than three feet long — from the water with his bare hands. Another of the guides clamps a hand over the lizard's jaws, displaying him to Finley. The guide is pulling back the gator's eyelids, explaining something about anatomy, when it suddenly wriggles out of his grasp.
A deadly swamp beast is now flopping around the boat in front of a half-paralyzed man. Finley's leg begins to shake.
Seconds crawl by. The lizard splashes back into the water.
"Well, anyway...," Swartley says.
Off again they glide into inky water. The older hunter in front slides an arm protectively around Finley's shoulder, just as he'd done with Amira.
As the darkness deepens, the men fall into a waiting routine. Hopes rise and fall with the whirring of the airboat motor. Every time the boat slows, there's a flurry of expectation. They cast a line, splash bait into the water. Someone hands Finley a crossbow, and he leans forward to aim. Then, nothing.
The gators are either too small or too far away to merit a shot. By early October, the gators on this river have already been hunted for a few weeks. Plus, there's a cold front moving in tonight. The animals are scarce, skittish, and reluctant to rise to the surface of the water.
Swartley cuts the motor. In the sudden quiet, the swamp smells mossy and sweet. Deftly, the captain leans down and plucks another baby gator, less than a foot long, from the muck. Everyone gets to touch the clammy skin, feel the warm pulse. The lizard's jaws are cute and Kermit-sized.
"That's the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life," Finley marvels.
"Now where's its mama?" someone wonders.
Anxiety wraps itself like a fog around the men. Did Finley curse himself with all that talk of being unlucky? How long would they have to wait to find out?
Swartley slows, plays a recording of gator hatchling calls in an effort to attract their mothers. The animals sound like vinyl rips on a turntable. Bullfrogs grunt back.
Finley chews his dip. The airboat men discuss wind and motors. They joke about ordering a pizza. Stars pulse in the cold sky.
As 11 p.m. approaches, they try again. They throw the bait out in front, as Swartley suggests. Finley leans forward expectantly. But the gator slips away.
"I had him," Swartley says mournfully.
Finley's right leg starts shaking. He presses down to steady it.
"How 'bout if we just catch one by hand and put it in your pocket, buddy?" Swartley asks.
Finley is quiet.
"We can hunt till 10 o'clock in the morning," the mate offers.
"We can, but we ain't going to," Finley responds.
Stomachs growl, and bladders threaten to burst. One of the crew mates complains he's got "bleacher ass." But when McDaniel asks if they should call it a night, the men protest. Nobody can stomach sending a crippled war hero home without a trophy.
Hours pass. The men dip their tobacco. Finley checks his cell phone.
Swartley is making sucking sounds, trying to imitate the gators again.
"Dagummit," he mutters.
Sometime after 1 a.m., Finley begins to nod off. The airboat men nudge him awake to take an occasional shot at a flash of mottled skin in the water. Otherwise, they are quiet, huddled against the wind.
The next afternoon, in a dusty West Melbourne subdivision, the wounded warriors gather in a volunteer's backyard garage. Three bloody gator carcasses — Johnson's, Olech's, and Amira's trophies — are stretched out on tables where a car would have been parked. The mottled hides are surrounded by toolboxes, a saw table, a beer fridge. The sun is too bright, and the smell of dead reptile is nauseating.
McDaniel, "the colonel," is freshly caffeinated, chatting with everyone, back-slapping, puffing on a cigar. Olech is skinning his gator. Amira is packing pink globs of meat into plastic bags. Johnson is snapping pictures of a gator head with his cell phone.
Horn sits on a chair behind the skinning tables, looking exhausted and sullen. He stayed out until 9:30 a.m. without catching anything. Now Horn is squabbling with Amira, talking about going out hunting again tonight. Someone reminds him that he'd said the trip wasn't about killing gators.
Horn shakes his weary head. "Did I say that?"
Finley shows up late to the garage, having crashed for five hours at the hotel. He gave up his hunt empty-handed at about 4:30 a.m. But now, for the first time all weekend, he has color in his cheeks. There's a Big Mac in his lap. He's a little disappointed but surprisingly cheerful about spending ten hours in the swamp without snaring a gator.
"It was just as cool catching 'em and bringing 'em on the boat as it would've been shootin' 'em," he declares.